I’d thought the carolers wowing and fluttering over street noise was bad. I was wrong.
Hawkers hollered for attention in despite of hooves clattering, conversation rumbling, and general work noises. The mélange of smells from every conceivable sort of vendor clouted my nose as aggressively as the racket pummeled my ears. At least I’d discovered why the weather was scheduled to be so clear and sharp: it was a market day.
Peak Place Market, despite its name, lay near the very bottom of the city. The sprawling open-air plaza was crammed with stalls of every sort. Simple pavilions hearkened back to its original purpose as a more or less standard farmers’ market. At the other extreme stood substantial shedlike buildings that, I suspected, barely skirted regulations banning permanent structures and almost certainly never actually were dismantled. Crowds shuffled through the narrow winding alleyways formed by the higgledy-piggledy clumps and strings of booths. I entertained a brief fantasy of hauling a fire marshal through the portal just to watch his—or her—reaction. After a moment I abandoned the thought reluctantly; I wouldn’t wish an aneurysm on anyone.
I’d seen similar bazaars and marketplaces in my own world, many retaining only the barest traces of their roots. The process was much less advanced here . . . but give it another century and a half, and I could see it becoming just the same sort of tourist-driven location, as transportation and communication continued to improve on the railroads and telegraphy currently common across the country. Already, I noticed, sellers of dry goods or household products, offering the convenience of one-stop shopping, had made inroads into the ranks of farmers, preparers, and other food-related concerns—I even caught a glimpse of a fishmonger, though I doubted there were many of them. If nothing else, Canterlot was too far inland for much saltwater fish to make it even by airship, and the limited local supply of freshwater fish had to serve the whole region, not just the city.
A slightly wrinkled trifold map of the marketplace, engraved artwork rotary-printed in black and red on cheap wood-pulp paper, had been among the brochures provided by Twilight. Swept up by accident in her haste? Added deliberately? I had no idea, but it was easy to imagine her as a wide-eyed young filly in tow of her parents and bored older brother, as the couple shopped for groceries and sundries among the stands in a world as yet innocent of supermarkets and only beginning to experience the joys of national brands. I’d made sure to pick up a new map at the checkpoint through which I entered, since I had a hunch the dog-eared decade-old copy was by now pretty much out of date.
Certainly the market was the very epitome of the type of sights I’d come to see—a telling peek at the city and its inhabitants as well as worthwhile visiting in its own right. Moreover, I couldn’t imagine a better place to find lunch. This would be far from my first meal as a pony, but it was my first opporunity to pick and choose, rather than eat what was set before me; I already had begun to notice similarities and differences in my tastes and wants, brought out by my directionless drifting. Despite my love of seafood back home, the fishmonger didn’t attract me. The bakers did, out of all proportion to my normally moderate interest in baked goods, sweet or savory. Still, the variances weren’t vast or jarring, and it was hard to tell how much was due to my hunger of the moment and how much represented more fundamental trends.
I wandered hither and yon, combining a general look around with staking out possibilities for good eats. Another benefit of this market, I mused as I turned my head to study a display of positively delicious-looking pot pies, was its distance from the palace and the folk there who knew me by sight. My thoughts broke off suddenly as I thumped solidly into another body and fell, limbs flailing, to the packed dirt. When my head stopped spinning and I could look around again, I caught sight of a white coat and chocolate-brown mane. The big blued-steel eyeglasses accompanying them had been knocked askew—but alas not completely off the dainty nose on which they perched.
“Mister . . . Cook?” a puzzled and all too familiar feminine voice inquired.
I managed not to blurt out “What are you doing here?” as the two of us scrambled back to our feet—at least my training was good for that much. What did fall out of my mouth was almost as bad, though, and I hid a wince.
“Ms. Inkwell. You’re rather far from the palace.”
She blinked at me for a moment, and I almost could hear the gears turning in her head as she straightened her glasses and her brain caught up. “I could say the same of you, Mister Cook.”
“Yes, well . . . yes. Well.” I looked around, but there was no escape.
“And I certainly don’t recall your name appearing on any schedule for today.” Considering she was one of the staffers responsible for maintaining said schedules, she would know.
“No, it doesn’t.” I felt oddly paralyzed as I stared at the shapely brown eyes framed by the spectacles.
“Yet here you are.” The pause that followed was pointedly expectant.
I sighed and sagged a little. “Here I am. I just wanted to spend a day touring the city without any kind of official notice or, ah, guidance, and the holiday season seemed like a good opportunity. Now, though—”
A small ladylike snort interrupted me, and I looked up from my hangdog posture at a young mare unsuccessfully hiding a smirk behind a hoof. “Now you’ve been found out. The jig is up, as they say.” When I looked away again, she snickered, though not unkindly. “Now, now, Mister Cook. As it happens I too have the day off, so just as you are simply Cook today, I am simply Raven. I shan’t return to the palace until the morning, so your secret is safe until then, at least.” Indeed, there was no sign of the collar and cravat I normally saw her wearing; instead she was, like most passersby, bundled up and bearing capacious shopping panniers. She cocked her head and studied me, her smile fading somewhat. “And maybe longer. If Their Highnesses ask, I can’t very well refuse to answer, but if they do not ask . . .”
“. . . access to the roads and waterways at the foot of the mountain,” Raven lectured pleasantly. “After all, this was long before the railroads came in, much less airships—although these days there is a rail yard nearby. Not a very big one, I’m told, but it does serve the river docks as well as the market here.”
I listened absently, my attention as much on our surroundings—and the speaker—as on her words. She wove through the crowds purposefully though without haste, bound for some yet unnamed destination in the wake of my further explication. As we ambled, I nodded and made encouraging noises at appropriate intervals to keep the tap flowing with a gentle stream of genuinely interesting and occasionally fascinating history and anecdotes.
After several minutes we emerged from a winding aisle onto a roughly circular open space ringed by more semipermanent kiosks and peppered with the low round tables and stools favored by the equine population. With my first breath of the myriad aromas battling for dominance in the cool air I began salivating, and I glanced up and around at the signs surmounting the host of service counters.
Apparently this little oasis specialized in hot and ready meals, a precursor to the slickly developed fast food industry to which I was more accustomed. Nearly all the signs were mostly or entirely pictorial, I noted, as was typical throughout most of history before mass literacy—which in this industrializing land was only a few generations old and still was hardly universal. Even the simple, spare menus and the accompanying prices were brightly painted and sometimes rather fanciful iconic pictures.
“Oh dear.” Raven had been silent for a minute or so, and the dismay in her voice jarred me back to attentiveness. “I hadn’t expected it to be this busy.” A pocket watch levitated from somewhere in the depths of her coat. “Well, it is the height of the lunch hour. I suppose that explains it.” She sighed. “Let’s see if we can find a table.”
We quartered the dining area twice before swooping down on a table for two just as it was vacated. My companion settled on one of the stools with a distinct air of relief, then made a shooing motion with a hoof. “Go fetch your lunch. I’ll get mine when you return.”